Jennifer Patterson

What a Long Straight Trip It’s Been

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From rag to respectability: the real dope on Canada's oldest underground weekly

Charles Campbell, managing editor of The Georgia Straight, is checking the final on-screen version of the Vancouver weekly’s Christmas issue. Outside the huge picture window of the second-floor office, located above a Regency Lexus dealership, two men are scrubbing and vacuuming luxury cars in the December rain. They test-drive the cars, says Campbell, and tell the newspaper’s staff which are the best models to buy. “As if I could ever afford to buy one of them,” he quips.

Then Campbell gets serious, asking if I knew that John Cruickshank, former managing editor of The Globe and Mail and now editor-in-chief of The Vancouver Sun, had talked to him a few months back about the city editor’s job. Why did Campbell turn down a job that probably would have given him, by his guess, a 20 percent pay increase, including benefits? “I’m not a daily news guy,” he shrugs, downplaying the significance of the Sun’s gesture and his own apparent lack of ambition. Besides, he adds, he didn’t like the idea of being the boss to “a bunch of calcified lifers” who would resent an upstart newcomer. Having worked part-time at the Sun before, Campbell knows what he isn’t missing: the dread he felt going to work each day, the daily deadlines, the ego clashes, the politics of the Southam chain. “I like working here,” he says simply. “I like what the Straight represents. I like working for an independently owned paper.”

Campbell comes across as unassuming and casual, looking boyish at 36 with his short hair and wide grin. But from his attitude (a combination of earnest professionalism and youthful rebellion) and his attire (a white shirt, open at the collar, and Gap trousers), you can detect traces of his private-school past, perhaps explaining how this laid-back editor with stalling speech and a crackling laugh had the confidence and savvy to turn a flagging alternative weekly into a successful rival for readers, critics’ awards and profits to the city’s struggling dailies.

The Georgia Straight has survived more than a quarter of a century, starting its life as Vancouver’s original anti-establishment “hippie rag.” It’s grown up along with its readership since the sixties and has tapped into a unique formula for success, combining the kind of muckraking journalism that appeals to an urban boomer audience, with a hip entertainment component that attracts younger readers. The Straight is now so successful, it’s outdistancing more conventional newspapers in attracting and keeping a healthy share of the market, hardly the fate you’d imagine for an underground paper that once suffered circulation so low it almost folded. Clearly, Campbell’s doing something right. These days, the weekly is even outscooping both the tired Vancouver dailies, the Sun and The Province.The Georgia Straight has become, for many Vancouverites, the only newspaper in town worth reading.

Last summer, the Straight abandoned its cramped downtown office and moved into a concrete building with gold-tinted windows in Kitsilano, an upscale Vancouver neighbourhood. Although the new headquarters may strike some as a bit too corporate for the funky Straight image, the move could be viewed as partly a symbolic gesture that the newspaper was ready to live up to its reputation as a successful, multimillion-dollar media operation.

At the entrance of the Straight’s new office is a dazzling, industrial-looking Georgia Straight logo bolted to the wall. Down the hall, there’s lots of joking and camaraderie among the Straight’s 19-member editorial and production team, most of whom are thirtysomething or younger. In the words of Naomi Pauls, 36, who was assistant editor until last summer, when she left to study publishing at Simon Fraser University, the Straight staff is “young, a bit alternative and incredibly committed. They aren’t always paid the most, but they really believe in the paper.”

These days, they have reason to be upbeat. The paper made enough profit in 1995 to pay bonuses to all 47 employees. An impressive feat, considering that 10 years ago, staffers had to wait weeks or months for their paycheques because the money just wasn’t there. “For a long time our wages were pretty low,” recalls Campbell, who made $6 an hour during his first year as managing editor in 1986.

Making money is clearly not the motivator, but today’s Straight definitely has a buzz. Even during the Christmas rush, when two issues are put out in one week, the atmosphere is surprisingly unhectic except for the evening dash to get free pastries, courtesy of the cafe downstairs. Chocolate croissants, apple fritters and blueberry muffins provide a sugary boost to help the staff work late into the evening.

Their sixties predecessors probably got by on other substances. Born in the Summer of Love, the original 10-cent underground tabloid carried radical stories on civil liberties, freedom of the press, native land claims and racism. Back then, the Straight was as likely to announce a groovy Stanley Park be-in as a serious political demonstration in front of the Vancouver courthouse. Beneath crooked headlines were hard-hitting political articles about the Black Panthers and student activism set on amateur, typewritten pages. The paper’s in-your-face tone meant news bulletins were written in an expository style, with a healthy dose of satire, while hippiesque designs of flowers, clouds and stars ran along the margins. Often, in those early glory days, an entire cover would be dedicated to a Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers or Acidman cartoon or, better still, a scandalous nude photograph.

Then-editor (and now publisher) Dan McLeod was a grad student and a poet who strongly advocated press freedoms. He opened up the pages of the Straight as a forum for alternative opinions, which often got him in trouble with the law. Within the first two years of publication, McLeod and his paper were charged with 27 counts of obscenity, one charge of “counselling to commit an indictable offence” (for publishing tips on how to grow marijuana) and one count of criminal libel for comparing a judge to Pontius Pilate.

When the paper was suffering financially-part of a general post-sixties slump experienced by most alternative papers-McLeod turned it into an entertainment weekly that earned a reputation as “the Rolling Stone of Canada” for its extensive music coverage. By 1985, the Straight was a flimsy 20-page tabloid with little to offer its readers besides rock reviews and interviews.

Now, The Georgia Straight is the only remaining paper of the Underground Press Syndicate, which once boasted some 400 members and spanned four continents. To survive, the paper has evolved considerably-the new weekly bears little resemblance to its sixties namesake. Once regarded as one of the feistiest underground publications in Canada, The Georgia Straight went straight long ago. Some say a little too straight.

Today’s Straight combines hard news, entertainment reviews and magazine-length features. Bright covers and retro fifties cartoons make the Straight a lively piece of pop art itself. Inside, long, essay-style investigative articles tackle serious subjects like Canada Customs censorship, the exploitation of garment workers, parasites in the water supply and death in the logging industry. More mainstream now, the Straight never publishes the kind of extreme partisan journalism traditionally found in many alternative weeklies.

Still, some critics wish the Straight had more of its old edge. Stan Persky, Globe columnist and former media critic for The Vancouver Sun, laments the fact that the Straight has gone a bit soft: “It started out as an alternative political paper. It wasn’t conceived of as an entertainment weekly with movies and rock concerts and the like.” Persky, who wrote for the paper in its early days, argues that by the Straight’s 20th anniversary, the paper wasn’t anything to be taken seriously. “It’s gotten better by virtue of publishing a weekly feature. But it’s not ideal. It’s not The Village Voice.”

It may well be that the advent of a younger generation not bred on sixties idealism made changes inevitable. When Charles Campbell entered the picture in 1986, he was 26 and still a relative newcomer to journalism. His background included contributions to the Ubyssey, the University of British Columbia’s campus paper, one summer at the Canadian Press bureau in Vancouver, a two-year stint as a reporter for The Vancouver Sun and some freelancing. The Straight job was his first big break. Since then, Campbell has proved a remarkable success?”a one-man show”-described by his contemporaries in almost heroic terms, as though he single-handedly turned the Straight into a respected, award-winning enterprise. “Charles is the architect of the paper as it is now,” says former Straight managing editor Bob Mercer. “It’s Charles’ vision that’s driving the paper,” adds Naomi Pauls.

Campbell didn’t waste time putting his vision into practice, adding serious pieces to the lighter mix right away. He broadened the range of arts and entertainment coverage from the usual rock reviews and mainstream movies to include local theatre, art and dance. Next, he shifted the front-section highlights away from the local music biz and featured political profiles to counter the celebrity interviews that were given full-cover play. Then, in 1991, the Straight broke style and put an investigative piece on the cover: “Who Was Robert Satiacum?” blazed the headline for a story about a controversial Native American activist who had sought refugee status in Canada and landed in a Vancouver jail. It was just a taste of things to come under Campbell’s tenure.

In October 1994, Campbell asked Charlie Smith, a CBC journalist, to join the Straight as news editor. The idea was to introduce news to complement the front-section features. Today, Smith usually writes four news pieces each issue, along with his “Straight Talk” column. In those pages, Smith routinely breaks news the dailies have missed. “He’s not just the news editor, he’s his own bureau,” says contributor Mark Leiren-Young. “It is really quite astonishing-by rights it should be impossible for a weekly to scoop a daily, and yet Charlie does it on a regular basis.” Smith’s scoops are an understandable source of pride at the paper. “I think the dailies are embarrassed to follow the Straight,” says Campbell. “There’s a generalized discomfort at the Sun that the Straight is beating them to far more stories than we ought to, given our resources. “

But if the editors at the Vancouver dailies are smarting, they don’t let on. Gary Mason, deputy managing editor at the Sun, admits reporters in the Sun newsroom read the Straight, but adds, “I don’t know if it’s the first thing we grab to see whether we’ve been scooped because I really haven’t seen a lot of that’ ” Province city editor Fabian Dawson says he “hasn’t seen them break any major stories,” either. Smith insists otherwise. “I believe I break a lot of stories all the time,” he says, citing an example of a November 1994 article on the new, faster B.C. ferries. The Sun followed up on the story, but took a different angle. In another case, the Straight ran a story about the scandal surrounding the appointment of a Simon Fraser University professor’s wife to a faculty position. “We came out on a Thursday,” Smith recalls. “The next week the Sun and the Province did virtually a carbon copy of the story.”

Smith says even if the editorial departments of the dailies claim not to feel threatened by the Straight beating them to the news, “On the corporate side it is a huge concern there’s no doubt of that. The concern that the Straight is successful and we’re making money and reaching a large readership, it bugs them ‘ “

Other things may bug them, too. Over the past 10 years, the Straight has featured first-rate local writers and reporters in its pages, including disenchanted former daily reporters who were attracted to the weekly’s magazine-style format (and undeterred by its lower pay) and the chance to explore some serious issues at length without being chastised for expressing a point of view. “The Straight’s strength is to be able to look at stories that may have been covered by the mainstream media, but do it in a more comprehensive way,” says Ben Parfitt, a former Sun forestry reporter who now writes for the Straight. “People don’t have time to follow stories day-by-day, but they can pick up the Straight and get a good idea of what the story’s all about.”

Since introducing the investigative cover features, the paper has raked in awards. Nineteen ninety-five was a record year for the Straight, which managed to pull in five Western Magazine Awards. In the last two years, the paper has been nominated more than 40 times and has won 20 prizes, including three National Magazine Awards. By now, it’s impossible not to know the Straight takes journalism very seriously and is taken seriously.

Despite all of The Georgia Straight’s success, owner Dan McLeod, now 52, has a lot on his mind these days. As the presence that binds today’s Straight with its notorious past, McLeod prefers to remain behind the scenes, running the financial side of the operation and leaving the editing to a capable editor like Campbell. The reserved publisher spends most of his time holding management meetings in his rose, beige and grey office, tucked away from the newspaper’s hustle and bustle. “You could work there for five years and never speak to him,” says Pauls.

McLeod and his paper have withstood various threats of competition over the years, most recently from the owners of two alternative weeklies, Toronto’s NOW magazine and The Seattle Weekly. Ironically, the dailies have overlooked the Straight as both a financial and editorial competitor, to their detriment. Pacific Press, the publisher of both The Vancouver Sun and The Province, is a subsidiary of Toronto-based Southam Newspaper Group, which, despite its stranglehold on the Vancouver market, has experienced three bleak money-losing years and become distanced from its readership. “The biggest failing of the dailies is that they just don’t cover local news well enough,” says Campbell. Without a healthy competitive atmosphere to keep the papers in top form, stories in the Vancouver papers started to read like press releases.

Meanwhile, business is booming at the Straight. Now the 100,000-circulation weekly reaches 472,000 readers in an average week through its 1,600 city-wide outlets, which accounts for 42 percent of adults in Greater Vancouver. Demographically, it’s an attractive sell: a typical Straight reader has at least some post-secondary education, eats out a lot and has an annual household income of $40,000 plus. Most sobering of all for the dailies, 50 percent of all Georgia Straight readers don’t read the Saturday Sun; 65 percent don’t read the Sunday Province.

Not surprisingly with stats like that, the Straight’s ad revenues have shot up 24 percent annually, and Pacific Press is worried. “They’re even more concerned how we’ve grown,” says McLeod. “It’s become a serious competition. You have to remember that these dailies are still 100 times bigger than we are. We are still small change, relatively. I guess it doesn’t matter how much of your turf somebody wants to grab away from you, you’re still going to defend it. If there’s a little fly buzzing around, you’re going to want to swat it.”

Right now, McLeod’s biggest concern is the presence of John Cruickshank, the new editor-in-chief of The Vancouver Sun. Since September 1995, Cruickshank has set about reshaping the Sun with a personnel shuffle that left the much-coveted city editor’s position open. Instead of narrowing his prospects to in-house staff, Cruickshank posted the job across the Southam network and courted Campbell over lunch (albeit at a B-list restaurant).”Cruickshank has the reputation as somebody who can and might shake things up at the Sun and make a better paper,” says McLeod. “So that’s something to worry about for us, if the editorial quality improves. They’re definitely trying to beef up the content.”

For Cruickshank, the Straight’s local coverage is definitely something to watch. Impressed by the quality of the Straight’s investigative reporting, the Sun’s new top editor has been watching the weekly closely. He thinks the Straight does a fine job catering to a “more upscale urban audience,” just the readership the Sun is trying to attract. “For that reason, it’s important that we keep an eye on what they’re doing. Sure. And learn from them when they’ve got something to teach us.”

Campbell has his own glassed-in office now, although he preferred the old place, where he shared two rooms with the entire editorial staff. “He’s a very reluctant executive,” says Pauls. He would sooner wear his Cat-in-the-Hat shirt to the office than a suit and tie. “I don’t like the boss thing,” he confesses, although he’s getting pushed in more serious directions now that the paper is growing. “I think it’s good that an independent paper nips at the ass of the dailies,” says Campbell.

“Competition is a good thing. Because of the Straight, the Sun has been forced to get better, and in return the Straight will have to become better still.”

A good challenge is obviously something Campbell will relish. “I like working for an underdog,” he says, perhaps unaware of the irony. Under his editorship, The Georgia Straight is hardly the underdog it used to be.


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